A Clear Eye (Coming of Age)
In 1947, twelve-year-old Callie lives on a primitive, isolated homestead in northern Canada. A lover of nature and seeker of truth, she wants to become a botanist. But her mother, Lillian, insists that Callie’s only purpose in life is to be a dutiful wife and mother, and her father, a veteran haunted by memories of war, refuses to interfere.
Her innocence, fostered by isolation and her mother’s determination to force Callie into an outdated mold, is the catalyst of a family feud that tests all Callie’s growing strength as she struggles for the freedom to be herself.
What People Are Saying
Beautiful writing with a crystal-clear observation of nature and the passing seasons, combined with a gritty, unflinching view of life on an isolated farm and how both shape a sensitive child. The characters are true to life and well-realized, with allowance made for Callie’s perspective on them, both clear and harsh.
— Barbara Gordon
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Callie struggles up the hill, thin body bulky in snow pants and parka, deep snow dragging at her legs. She flings herself on a windswept rock ledge above the creek mouth and squints against sunlight striking cold, brilliant sparks on the crusted snow. Behind her, chickadees sing in a grove of skeletal poplars and below, to the left, the glittering, frozen lake curves away to the southeast.
She takes off her mitts and holds between warm hands the icy silver trunk of a young cottonwood beside the ledge. The poor tree is frozen, yet lives; it will make leaves and grow taller when warm weather comes. Amazing how plants seem able to endure almost anything. The hard, ripe wheat kernels in her father’s granary survive the cold yet green wheat dies if it freezes. Perhaps because green wheat is full of moisture, though water under the creek ice doesn’t freeze. But it’s always on the move.
Soon be time for her to move, too; the chill of frigid rock is penetrating through the wool pants to her flesh. Not that it matters. Being cold is nothing.
Yesterday Lillian screamed her into a corner, so angry her tongue seemed to spit flame. Callie had cowered, shaking, her own tongue frozen. Her mother is calmer today but there’s no knowing when she’ll erupt again.
Callie tucks her blonde braids inside the parka hood and breathes in the silence of Herron Valley. A week ago, a late February chinook had melted six inches of snow, raising restless urges in seed, root and sap. Next day fresh Arctic winds crisped the melt to a thin crust, leaving the sun-seeking life nothing but mere shadowy dreams of spring.
A mile west, the valley slopes up to a ridge crowned with jack pine, spruce and poplar, where timber wolves sing in deep winter. Beyond are the Rockies, too far away to see, and she has to imagine snowbound granite peaks, barren and ferocious. Above the valley floor a hawk coasts, scanning the snow for mice.
The snow-drowned creek, marked by bare willows, snakes north through the half-buried barbed wire fences of her father’s farm. The buildings are hidden behind a hill jutting out from the valley’s eastern wall and it’s easy to pretend the buildings and people aren’t there, that the empty land is all hers.
Movement catches her eye. “Jake! What are you doing?”
The collie is digging beside the creek, ears forward, fur spattered with snow, tail wagging. She slips and slides down the slope to see what he’s found.
It’s the tip of an antler. She tugs, freeing it from tangled dead grass beneath the snow. It seems too big for a deer, so it might be elk.
Kneeling beside Jake, she uses her hands to dig up leg bones. If they’re elk, Lewis will want all of them.
The snow dims to dull mica flashes and she looks up to see thin white clouds covering the blue sky in ripples that Lewis calls a mackerel sky. The ripples are all the same, like furrows in a plowed field, not nearly as good for sky dreams as the heaped meringue of cumulus clouds.
With a start, she realizes the sun has moved some distance across the sky. She’d promised to take Jake for a quick walk and come right home. Now Lillian will blow up again. Her flesh shrinks inside the parka.
She picks up the antler. “Come on, Jake.”
The collie trots ahead along their trail, then stops to mark a willow with his scent, his pee turning to pale yellow ice crystals. Crystal is a beautiful word. It sounds exactly like the shattering of thin milk-white ice that forms over a puddle in the first frosts of fall.
The sky is clearing again. If the wind doesn’t blow all the clouds away, sunset could bring cloud fire; peach, mauve and burning gold above the dull, dusky green of the firs, giving the snow a glow that seems almost warm.
She makes several side trips up the hill to look for leaf buds on the poplars. On the last one, she snaps off a branch to take home and put in water. The warmth of the house should make the buds appear, make them grow faster.
When she tops the rise at the south end of the half-acre vegetable garden, another hour has passed. She leans on the corner fence post and tries to armor herself against Lillian’s anger.
The house, a small, white, frame box with a red roof, crouches beside the dirt road a few yards beyond the north end of the garden, separated from it by a shallow gully that carries water from the spring down to the creek. When they homesteaded here in 1943, Lewis laid a twenty-four by twenty-four foot floor which looked too small for a kitchen, front room and two bedrooms. It’s far too small when Lillian’s on a rampage. Is she on one now? Two bedroom windows, and the attic window above, form an upside down blank face, which gives no answer.
The yard lies in a saucer of land backed on three sides by hills, the western lip broken off where the land slopes down to the creek. At the far side of the saucer is the mansard-roofed barn and a chicken shed, their unpainted wood weathered to the color of faded brown grass. There’s no sign of her father but he might be in the workshop, which sits beside the head of the spring just below the eastern pasture hills. Or in the house, if he’s finished his chores.
Boots crunching frozen snow, she tramps past the garden, across the gully and through the small wooden gate. Inside the shed attached to the north side of the house, she drops antler and poplar branch on the work bench, takes off her parka and tries to visualize Lillian in a summer mood.
It’s not easy. Her mother has a smooth round face, short, graying brown hair, and pale blue eyes that twinkle when she laughs. But she rarely laughs. She’s mad most of the time, her mouth turned down in an ugly curve.
Lillian appears in the kitchen doorway. “I told you to come right home. Get in here and peel some potatoes.”
Callie flinches. Lillian’s voice is high, her English accent sharp, so she’s really on the warpath. Her hair is wound on metal rollers and her short, plump figure strains at the seams of a wartime striped cotton house dress that barely reaches her knees. Beige lisle stockings end in two small wrinkles above tie oxfords.
As Lillian moves away, her glance grazes the antler and fastens on Callie. “Don’t bring that filthy old thing into my house! Take it away or I’ll throw it in the fire.”
“I brought it for Dad. It’s not hurting anything.”
“Don’t you dare talk back to me!” Lillian’s face is flushed, her eyes blue-shadowed snow. “Get rid of it.”
Callie, head bent, puts her parka back on and takes the antler to Lewis’s sanctuary, a small lean-to on the side of his workshop. He’s in there looking at a partly assembled skeleton in the light from one tiny window. “Dad, here’s an antler. Is it elk?”
He turns toward her, a tall, spare figure in faded denim overalls, red plaid shirt and jacket, a battered felt hat pulled low over his eyes. She hands him the antler, then looks at an old calendar picture tacked to the rough wall. A majestic bull elk with massive antlers, his head held high, stands on a ridge, snow-capped mountains behind him. He looks strong and free, as though he could go anywhere and do anything he likes.
“It’s from an elk all right,” Lewis says. He has a deep voice, calm and soothing, though Lillian complains that he talks flat Canadian. He bends and places the antler in position beside the skull.
“Jake and I dug up a whole pile of bones.” When she asked him why he was building a skeleton, all he’d say was, ‘to prove I can.’ There must be more to it than that, or Lillian wouldn’t get so mad.
“We’ll go get them in a day or two.” He’s frowning now, his eyes dark under the shadow of his hat. “Your mother’s pretty upset. She says you told a lie.”
“I didn’t!” The accusation is a swift knife thrust, jarring her whole body, bringing tears to her eyes.
Lewis never lies. He has a poker face when he plays blackjack with her, and sometimes a poker tongue when she asks questions. But when he does say something, it’s the truth, and he expects other people to do the same.
He stands, head canted, silent, waiting.
She rubs her arm across her eyes. “In my head I call you and Mom by your first names. Yesterday I slipped and said ‘Lillian’ out loud. She said I was disrespectful. But I didn’t mean it that way.” They’re people in their own right, just like she is. They don’t call her Daughter, so why should she call them Father and Mother?
“She’s strong on people doing the proper thing,” he says. “So you didn’t tell a lie?”
“No, I didn’t.” She’ll die right on the spot if Lewis doesn’t believe her.
Lewis’s face clears. “That’s all right then.” He turns back to the bones and Callie goes outside to stare down at the house, her stomach muscles clenched.
Lillian lied to Lewis. Why?
Because she’s mean, just out and out mean, that’s why. She knows Lewis hates lying and she knows Callie cares what he thinks.
The shock becomes anger, burns away her tears.